During last month’s All-Star Game in Minnesota, outgoing Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig told Fox’s Ken Rosenthal that he was proud to leave behind a legacy that ushered baseball into the wild card era of professional sports, saw tremendous economic growth and revenue sharing, and that he can say he led the league to what he called, “22 years of labor peace.”
Maybe that was Selig’s guess on how long Rob Manfred, Tim Brosnan, or (shudder) Tom Werner will sit in office before the next lockout or strike threatens to put a halt to baseball’s streak of 20 years of labor peace, or at least 20 years without any interruptions caused by labor disputes. In any case, Selig is right about one thing; 20 years of peace since nearly destroying the game is nothing to scoff at.
Aug. 12, 1994 isn’t one of those dates when you will always remember where you were. Baseball’s strike was inevitable, a pending circumstance that had little movement, few rays of hope since the idea of one began percolating in the months prior. The Red Sox were in Baltimore for a game that was rained out in the bottom of the third inning, never to be rescheduled, never to be played again.
“We haven’t had our best lineup out there all year,” Mo Vaughn said before he and his teammates went their separate ways. “Maybe by the time we get back, we will.”
They never did.
Tony Gywnn, hitting .394 when the strike began, never got a chance to make a run at .400. Matt Williams (43 home runs) never got to continue his assault at Roger Maris’ then-record 61. The first-place Montreal Expos, 74-40 through 114 games, simply would never recover.
When the strike came down 20 years ago Tuesday, few thought it might matriculate into the atomic bomb that it ended up becoming. The players’ union, headed by ol’ buddy Donald Fehr, was steadfast in its opposition to owners implementing a salary cap in a restructuring of the collective bargaining agreement. It was the eighth work stoppage since 1972, but nothing to the degree of cancelling the World Series had yet to pass in any of the previous seven disputes.
“It’s a sad day for all the players and baseball fans,” Fehr said the day the players walked. “We recall another 12 — June 12, 1981, which was the beginning of a strike that was settled 50 days later. We don’t know yet that this will be 1981 all over again. The answer to that doesn’t depend on us. It’s the greatest game there is. We have to find a way to put it back together.”
For the first time in 90 years, the Fall Classic was not to be. Acting commissioner Selig made the announcement on Sept. 14, a little more than a month into the strike, that the postseason was cancelled, driving a stake into the hearts of pennant-chasing teams like the Yankees, Expos, and Indians. It wasn’t just that baseball was gone. Frankly, in Boston, the only things to give a damn about were Vaughn (26 home runs, .984 OPS). Roger Clemens’ “down” season (9-7, 2.85 ERA, 170 2/3 innings pitched, 168 strikeouts, and a 6.1 WAR), and waiting for Butch Hobson’s inevitable dismissal. Elsewhere, the promising Indians were making a run at the very first wild card, the Yankees were enjoying a Renaissance pre-Jeter, and the Expos, enjoying the best season in franchise history, were simply demolishing everything in their path. If they won the World Series that year, who knows what the future held for baseball in Montreal, a place that despite its obsession with Les Canadiens, also holds a significant torch for our national pastime. But on Aug. 12, 1994, the Expos as Montreal knew them, began a slow death that would eventually take them to Washington, D.C.
It wasn’t until March the following year that things were finally settled, in the midst of the farce that was “replacement players” (Lou Merloni, Kevin Millar, “Oil Can” Boyd, and Brian Daubach among them) and the collapse of a TV deal that brought on the embarrassing “Baseball Network,” complete with regionalized playoff telecasts. Neat. During the strike-shortened season of ’95, attendance dropped from an average of 31,612 in ’94 to only 25,260, a 20 percent plunge. Twenty years later, baseball still isn’t at the level it enjoyed pre-strike. Last year’s average attendance was 30,514, a 1.06 percent drop from 2012, and this season likely promises much of the same. Through the first half of the season, major league clubs were averaging 29,901 fans per game, a 1.13 percent decrease from 2013.
Of course, much of that has to do with the fact that baseball surpassed its numbers from the early-90’s from 2006-08. It’s now on about the same level of attendance at it saw about a decade ago, which of course, was predicated by the Great Home Run Chase of 1998, the Yankees’ dynasty, and the Red Sox finally getting over their World Series hump. Oh, and steroids. Right.
Selig wasn’t keen to mention that whole business during his All-Star interview, but the age of performance-enhancing drugs did indeed bring baseball back to the common fan. You can’t deny it. Without McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, and Clemens, baseball doesn’t flourish at the level it has enjoyed since the strike. They embarrassed the record books? Sure. They embarrassed the game? Nah, that had already been done for them.
Selig’s trumpeters can point to the successes the game has seen during his stint as commissioner, but his name will forever be attached to the 1994 strike, the lowest point in the history of Major League Baseball. His successor will have similar challenges on his plate; how to maintain a game’s popularity in 2014, with attendance figures and ratings dipping, if ever so slightly. It’s precisely why Selig was OK burying his head in the sand as baseball morphed into an arcade game. How exactly would a guy like Werner prepare for a similar crisis? More Wally Wave?
The collective bargaining agreement expires on Dec. 1, 2016. That’s 21 years, despite Selig’s math, of labor peace. Since the ’94 strike, we’ve seen five work stoppages in the other major sports leagues (two in the NHL, two in the NBA, one in the NFL). Remarkably, baseball rolls along with few disputes in sight, but with the knowledge that the next one could be the one to fight for.